–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

On a Metaphor in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

by | Jun 9, 2024

I want to talk about a certain metaphor in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. It appears in a lone sentence in Book III, Ch. 3., and while mentioned only briefly, it is significant, not just in understanding the Ethics, but in grasping a crucial point about the limits of reason and deliberation in ethics more generally.

[T]he end cannot be a subject of deliberation, but only the means; nor indeed can the particular facts be a subject of it, as whether this is bread or has been baked as it should; for these are matters of perception.

My interest here is not with the first part of the sentence, regarding ends and means, but with the second part regarding the bread. In the first part of that second part, Aristotle seems to anticipate Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblances: we cannot deduce that something is bread, by holding it up to a list of criteria, but must see that it is bread by perceiving it as being suitably similar to already established instances of bread. Aristotle then goes on to say that the same applies to whether the bread is sufficiently baked – that is, whether or not it is good bread – and this too is a matter of perception, not deliberation. The reason is fascinating and sheds a great deal of light on the relationship between the general and the particular in ethics and thus, the appropriate role of reason in social and civic activity.

Aristotle’s ethics is probably most associated with the famous “doctrine of the mean,” according to which the virtuous temperament is the moderate or “reasonable” one, and the right thing to do in any given situation, consequently, is whatever lies between extremes of excess and deficiency. He arrives at this conclusion after an investigation into human nature, concluding that human beings are essentially rational in both the contemplative and deliberative sense of the word and that moral well-being, like physical and psychological health, is served by moderation and undermined by its opposite.

One of the notable things about Aristotle’s view is that it means that no action is intrinsically good or bad, because any action could lie anywhere on the relative spectrum of deficiency/moderation/excessiveness, given suitable circumstances. Also notable is that as far as action goes, the doctrine of the mean doesn’t help us very much. To be told not to do too much or little of something but rather, the right amount, isn’t particularly helpful in determining how I should act on any given occasion and neither is being told that “the reasonable/virtuous thing to do is what the reasonable/virtuous person would choose.”

Of course, this is all by design, as early in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that “it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the subject admits.” Ethics and political science are subjects that do not admit of much precision, in this sense, and thus, Aristotle warns us that “fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premises to indicate the truth roughly and in outline.” 

Aristotle’s account here of why ethics and political science do not admit of precision ultimately boils down to the question of the general versus the particular. Geometry, to take an example, is concerned with the general: Squares are definable in terms of a set of essential characteristics, and thus, what applies to one square will always apply to another. But people and their lives and behavior are not like this. One person is very different from the next, as are the circumstances in which people find themselves, and this means that what applies to one person, in one set of circumstances, may not apply to another person in another set of circumstances. Unlike geometry, then, ethics and political science are concerned with the particular, much more than the general, the latter about which we can only make the vaguest of claims. In the case of moral and civic virtue, the devil is pretty much all in the details, as the very same action could be the best thing to do for one person on one occasion, and absolutely the worst for another on a different one.  

In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom wrote that “the particular as particular escapes the grasp of reason, the form of which is the general or universal,” and we can see why. One square is as good as another, so I can reason my way to a complete understanding of squares, on the basis of nothing but their essential characteristics and a number of intuitively grasped axioms. In the case of particulars like people and circumstances, however, one is not as good as another, so in order to gain a full understanding of them, one must, as Wittgenstein put it, look and see, as deducing will only get us so far – in this case, as far as “don’t do too much or too little, but rather the right amount.”

Returning to the metaphor of the bread, across the street from my old university is a Panera Bread store, which, oddly, allows you to enter from the back, through the kitchens. One thing that always caught my eye is a chart that is supposed to instruct bakers on when a bagel is properly baked. On it are pictures of three bagels: one is undercooked, one is overcooked, and one is cooked just the right amount. Of course, the chart is entirely useless to someone who is not already an experienced baker, just as models of excessive, deficient, and moderate behavior would be useless to someone who is not already well experienced in social and civic goings-on. Resemblances and certainly, sufficient resemblances, can only be seen, not reasoned to. No bagel that you cook is going to be identical with any of the pictures in the chart, so whether the bagel in your hand is cooked the right amount is a matter of seeing whether it sufficiently resembles the bagel in the picture, and this requires an experienced eye. Similarly, no action-situation with which one is confronted is ever going to be identical with the models of excessive, deficient, and moderate behavior you have been shown, which means that determining whether this is the right thing to do in these circumstances will be a matter of seeing whether the thing and the circumstances are sufficiently similar to others, in which it was the right thing to do. This also requires an experienced eye, which, with respect to moral and civic matters, is what Aristotle calls “practical wisdom.”

Ethics, then, is the discipline in which ratiocination and rational investigation do us the least good. A practically wise person – the one with an experienced eye for moral and civic affairs –  who has never been told the doctrine of the mean or given any other moral principles or rules can be counted on to do the right thing on a consistent basis, whatever situations may come.  But the person educated in principles, rules, and doctrines, if not practically wise, will get no farther than the platitudinous generalities that are all we can get by way of reason in ethics, and as a result, can be counted on to get things wrong, morally and civically speaking, on many occasions.